Unless you’re a marine biologist or work at an aquarium, you probably can’t tell the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise. I recently had to look up their distinguishing characteristics – which include their relative numbers of species, their length, and the shape of their teeth – on the informative www.dolphinworld.org.
But almost all of us know there is a difference between a dolphin and a porpoise, that these aquatic mammals are similar but not the same, and that their two names are not interchangeable.
For many of us, mission and purpose resemble dolphin and porpoise. We know they’re different, but we may not know how they differ. To help make this distinction clear, I thought we’d take a trip to See World, the place I go when I want to learn more about something important, something I know will have an impact on the way I think and act.
In See World, I dive beneath the surface of words to understand their meaning more deeply. Instead of snorkeling over dictionary definitions, I don my scuba gear and descend into etymology, the study of the origin of words, with the help of the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Mission dates back to the 1590s, from the Latin missionem, the act of sending. This act of sending occurs when we mail a missive, launch a missile, dispatch a missionary to a post, or send an envoy or group on a diplomatic or humanitarian mission. Mission involves action and doing. Beyond a concept, fulfilling your mission means doing the work.
Purpose predates mission, originating in the late 13th century, from the French root porpos, aim or intention, which in turn derives from the Latin pro (forth) and the French poser (to put), as in to propose an idea. We see aim and intention in proposals we submit, poses we strike, propositions we vote on, and the pros and cons we consider before making a decision. Purpose involves vision and thinking. It is conceptual, and realizing your purpose means knowing why you do the work you do.
Just as purpose predates mission on the timeline of etymology, intention must precede action on the timeline of your life if you are to design and live the best life you want for yourself.
For action without intention not only leads you into trouble but also lacks the power to take you where you want to be.
And action with intention not only keeps you out of trouble but also has the power to take you wherever you want to go.
Understanding the difference between dolphins and porpoises might make you better at helping your kids with their homework or help you win a few bucks on a quiz show.
Understanding the difference between mission and purpose constitutes practical and critical knowledge that can help you when you’re:
- Writing a mission statement for yourself or the organization where you work
The mission statement explains what you do, such as counsel troubled adolescents, provide strategies to increase efficiency, or offer customers the widest choice of high-end audio components, and it must be aligned with your purpose – to keep adolescents out of crisis, to help companies achieve greater profitability, or to enhance the listening experience.
- Reinventing yourself in a career transition
Turning off one set of daily activities and turning on another will not bring you greater fulfillment unless you know why you want to flip the switch.
- Realizing where you went wrong in a personal or professional relationship
Nearly all of the time, when something doesn’t work out, it’s not because we didn’t put in the work but because we worked at it for the wrong reasons.
- Making decisions about how to allocate your time
Asking yourself whether a particular action, such as volunteering, taking a class, reorganizing your entire house or apartment, or joining a networking group, serves your purpose is the best way to determine whether to do it or not.
- Evaluating the wisdom and potential of an idea
Sometimes you have a great idea that you’re eager to act on but is not aligned with your purpose. These ideas may still be meant to be developed and realized – by someone else.
- Responding when someone challenges your actions or criticizes your lack of accomplishment
You can say, I’m on my way. I may not have taken a step today or as many steps as I’d like, but I know where I’m going and why.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this visit to See World as much as I have. Others may confuse purpose and mission, but not you. You now know they are as different as … well, a dolphin and a porpoise.